Remembering, Honoring and Grieving Migrant Deaths: Unsettling the Politics of Grave Silence
I write these lines to remember, record and grieve fallen migrants who fiercely fought against the relentless border regimes in the Balkans and wider European geographies. Pushed into despair and ultimately robbed of breath, thousands of migrants attempt to cross the perilous terrains of the Balkans only to meet police batons, electric shocks, tear gas and sharp teeth of the trained dogs ready to tear apart the racial Other. According to the Schengen Border Code, border surveillance “shall be carried out in such a way as to prevent and discourage persons from circumventing the checks at border crossing points” (2016, Article 13). Activists in the Balkans, including myself, have spent years documenting the politics of discouragement which is an act of sabotage and crime against humanity. Tortured, beaten and left to die, migrant lives and their bodies are routinely wiped off the face of the Earth (Welcome Initiative, 2021). This contribution arrives in recognition of those who left us too early while forging tremendous struggles. They have laid the ground for our freedoms. This writing is therefore one attempt to honor their lives and continue building in their wakes.
My defiant activism, formed at an early age when my family and communities experienced unspeakable violence during the nineties, ran into the intimidating walls of the European migration regime. I have been standing breathless in the midst of the intensity of the quotidian police violence and militarization of the borders overwhelmed by the inability to confront and change its course. A camaraderie with Welcome Initative and Transbalkan Solidarity, both formed in the midst of two recent crises, namely the European refugee crisis of 2015 which established racialized control of movement and the Covid-19 pandemic which established the regimes of camp confinement and inaccessibility of medical aid to migrants has offered us collective spaces for reimagining and countering the grim realities of migrant lives in Europe. However, the public outcry created through our collective activism has not stopped the violence even for a moment. Criminalization of migration and the consequently criminalization of solidarity and those who mobilize for freedom of movement and civic resistance against the regimes of the European migration securitization grammar has left a mark of powerlessness on our activism.
A dear comrade and a journalist Barbara Matejčić recently wrote about reading testimonies on violent pushback of refugees across the Croatian-Bosnian border: “I couldn’t read them anymore. At the same time, I was overwhelmed by anger and powerlessness. Anger because this keeps happening again and again, and powerlessness because it seems this violence is unstoppable” (Matejčić 2020). This writing too comes from a place of deep soaring, from anger and powerlessness. It arrives from the shock at how normalized it is to push a migrant under the train, suffocate a Black person in broad daylight, let a refugeed mother drown, hunt and torture migrating families, or push a displaced person to commit suicide. These are crimes of the state against humanity, against the most vulnerable of citizens, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. Ideologies of punishment sustain their justifications. They are meted out with intentional and precise lethal force, resembling both the known tortures of the (recent and long) past and strategies of violence that are newly underway. Drawing on Bhattacharyya et. al (2021), a migrant arrives as an empty vessel, under-class citizens and subject to outbreaks of violence. It operates as a rhetorical device of the state wherein all the anxieties of the nation are poured. Rife with the flooding perturbations emerging from the racialized and nationalist underpinning ideologies, migrant bodies invite incursions only to become forced to evacuate life.
In a split of an exhale
U sumi blizu Usivka pronadjeno obješeno tijelo osobe.
Sumnja se da je netko od stanovnika kampa.
Tijelo je bilo dosta raspadnuto tj. tamo je bilo vise od mjesec dana.
Tekstualna poruka od aktivistkinje Inicijative Dobrodošli, 10. listopada/oktobra 2020.
In the woods near Ušivak, a hanging body was found.
It is suspected that this is someone from the camp.
The body was quite decayed, it looks like it was there for over a month.
A text message from a fellow activist of the Welcome Initiative, Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 12th October 2020
I have been staring at this text message for too long. Someone’s body had been hanging on a tree branch for over a month. Somebody who lived in a camp with other migrants, was under constant surveillance by the police, security staff, international humanitarian workers, and local humanitarians. Yet no one had noticed. I grieve this death in silence, as I am lost for words.
An image of another death traveled my way; in another camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a young man, Ahmed’s throat was cut when he attempted to enter a refugee camp by crawling under its wired fence. It was after the curfew had started. The blood on his neck was already dry by the time he was found. Another death, one of many, went unnoticed.
Last spring I received a phone call from several families asking for help to find their children, young men from Syria, who were in a transportation-truck accident. My breath turned into hyperventilation as I searched hospitals, morgues, and police stations and talked in secrecy with doctors, nurses, and coroners. Uncovering and accounting for the crimes of the European migration regime, as barely any information on the accident, injury, death or the transportation of the deceased exist publicly, lays a veil of grave silence.
Before they had even turned twenty, those young spirits crossed a final border, in a split second. I long to learn who these persons were before they became an uncounted number, before irretrievably crossing the thin line between life and death. What encounters and experiences ended their lives or led them to end it on their own? What stories about the living conditions in the migrant camps across Europe, or the dangerous journeys through securitized borders and racialized surveillance, can we read between the lines in notes and text messages? What might have been Ahmed’s last thought before the sharp fence cut his throat and disabled his breath? What are we complicit in when we leave these deaths unspoken and unmourned?
Of the many migrants who have perished across Europe over the past few years, some bodies were identified and returned to families, many rest unidentified in graveyards, and some are still being searched for. Before they became bodies of uncounted deaths, all of them had names and hopes. All of them lived and died in defiance of the walls and fences that inundate Europe, that divide land masses and decide where a person is allowed to be based on their race, class and nationality. The act of bearing witness, not nearly as defiant, nevertheless rendering us lost for words, lost for breath, and drowning in the mud of hopelessness very much alive.
Discouraging movement for freedom
The long summer of migration of 2015 refers to the increased movement of people fleeing ongoing wars and occupations in South West Asia and North Africa, predominantly to European countries (Kasparek and Speer 2015). In autumn, the dangerous crossings that people were desperately undertaking seemed to ease, with the formation of the “Balkan corridor” and organized transportation from the Greek-Macedonian border to Austria and Germany (Bužinkić and Hameršak 2017). However, racial profiling, surveillance, and the fast disintegration of the Balkan corridor by April 2016 made elongated migrant journeys more desperate. Despite the initial opening of some borders and the proclamations of “Refugees, welcome!” the exclusionary mechanisms of ‘Fortress Europe’ soon kicked in.
In the Balkans, with Croatia as a guardian state of the external borders of the European Union, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia negotiating membership in the European Union, a wide stretch of imagination of what punishment of those who attempt to cross those borders could look like – has been unfolding in the most ruthless of the ways. The long summer of migration was an onset to deployment of overt technologies of racialized profiling and labeling between good and bad refugees or refugees and economic migrants. Over the years, with no exception, all became bad ones. Thus, the forcible removals in forms of violent pushbacks (Border Violence Monitoring Network, 2021) and deportations in the death of the night, confinement in refugee camps with no access to soap and water but excessive exposure to police batons and electric shocks (Transbalkanska solidarnost 2020), and increased border surveillance with sophisticated technologies paid for through the overblown budgets of the securitization-militarization industrial complex – became everyday affairs.
In March of 2018, a six-year-old Afghan girl, Madina Hussiny, was run over by a train as she and her family were pushed across the rail tracks to Serbian territory by the Croatian police nearby Šid, a well-established location for the unlawful and violent pushbacks of migrants and refugees from Croatian territory. In November of 2021, the European Court for Human Rights ruled that Croatia had violated the rights of the Hussiny family and particularly Madina. This was an act of racialized violence made possible by the defamatory marking of brown bodies of Afghani refugees as bad, illiterate, and undeserving, refugees, as unassimilable outsiders and racial Others in Europe. Madina’s death is a horrific reminder of how ruthless the migration regime has been, and will continue to be.
Popularly called techniques of discouragement, these mechanisms of anti-refugee violence are in fact just the racialized and violent expulsions of non-white and non-European people of color. They are deemed disposable and undeserving of European asylum that conveniently evolved into a mechanism that has sought to keep people of color out of Europe. In the Balkans, desperate migrant journeys, defined by the crude labor of bare survival and hope, turns into a trap if they get stuck in the refugee camps or the woods and jungles of Bosnia and Herzegovina or elsewhere in the Balkans. Violation and humiliation of these people, of their hopeful crossing, is integral to the politics of death orchestrated by the European migration securitization regime with its Croatian foot soldiers. In the crossings between the “two imagined worlds” (Herceg, 2020), hundreds have exhaled in the rivers, been pinned down to the ground, burned down in prison cells, beaten to miscarriage, bitten by police dogs, and abandoned. The unstoppable machinery of migrants’ deaths ruthlessly takes life, as casually and routinely, as we take a sip of coffee. One after another.
The politics of migrants’ deaths also occur where the border exerts its power through the brutal simplicity of ‘letting die,’ by counting on dangerous river streams or the morbid cold of the mountains. Just in the past few years in the Balkans, at least thirty-seven migrants drowned in Mrežnica, Korana, and others. Nine froze to death. Five were killed in traffic accidents or hit by trains. Four died due to respiratory illness or occurrence of ‘natural death’ (Opačić, 2022). Many others whose lives are lost do not even find their place in these numbers because they go unnoticed, unreported, or uncounted. Departed from this world in invisibility, with tremendous pain and even more unfulfilled hope, their decayed bodies are taken by the river streams or stuck on unreachable shores, hanging off tree branches, or frozen in the mountains. Graves for Jane Doe’s scattered across the Balkans in the ditches and gulches have joined the unrestful eternity of the thousands killed and disappeared in the ex-Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s.
They keep journeying in faraway invisible places, in between worlds, while their families’ mourning remains everlasting. Grief is intensified by the impossibilities of burying the disappeared and sending their loved ones to light. Kobelinsky (2020) notes that “By disappearing at the border, they would become definitively invisible: anonymous bodies with no genealogical ties, cut off from their families, leaving no trace, and therefore ‘ungrievable” (p. 713). These deaths, at the end of their lives, reduced to worn-out bodies but still with fierce will and desire to move, to hope, to create, leaves us with a responsibility: the responsibility to not forget, to not lose hope, to document, write, mourn. Crucially, to speak out and respond to racialized violence by countering its normalization.
How can we mourn the deaths of those whom we have never met but whose lives and despair lay out a praxis of defying these rigid systems of power?
Mourning and confronting grave silence: protesting and coalition-building
At the final destination of the shipment, with the bodies of our brothers, arrived the sobs of mothers, the cries of family and friends, and the pain of communities around the world. What arrived was complete silence. Dead air across an open container. Someone’s dreams vanished. The hands that had in defense of life shut the container in Šid are now completely unrecognizable. The flesh and bones of those who came seeking freedom of movement remain motionless among pallets of fertilizer. Their struggle for a dignified life, common safety and freedom ended in the eerie sediment of a red cargo container.
–Transbalkan Solidarity, Made in EU: Containers of Death, October 2020
In October 2020, seven young men from North Africa were found dead in shipping containers in Paraguay. Their decomposed bodies and the shipment document indicated that they were locked in the containers for over three months. Prior to their long and desperate journey across the ocean, they were registered in a refugee camp in Šid, Serbia by the Croatian-Serbian border, a common site of violent pushbacks. These young men were likely expelled from Croatia multiple times, humiliated by racial slurs and beaten with batons and electric shocks. Left with bruises and fractured limbs, robbed of their phones, money and possessions, soon they were stripped of their last breath in the bottom of a shipping container.
It takes 21 hours and 47 seconds for the shipping container to become a coffin. Pinned down to the ground, with a stabbing knee in his neck, George Floyd was robbed of his breath in 8 minutes. George Floyd’s cry for breath and for his mama, in these last minutes, provoked a global rage. The global Black Livers Matter movement re-energized activists and solidarity movements in Croatia and the Balkans after years of hopeless attempts to counter the spread of militarization and police violence that caused the deaths of innumerable migrants. It made us see and hear the cries of seven young men who perished in Paraguay, of Ahmed’s tormented exhale after his throat was cut off under the wired fence, of Madina who vanished under the train, and many who were robbed of breath through the lens of intersecting regimes of death and dispossession.
With homes in Zagreb and Minneapolis, both sites of the long-standing politics of violence and resistance, I became involved in forging the Initiative Against Police Violence and Racism that organized the first antiracist multiracial protest in Croatia at the beginning of June of 2020. The protest gathered Black, Arab, African and migrant communities living in Croatia alongside activists, artists, journalists and others who chanted against the devaluation of lives and the normalization of death. As we kneeled at the Square of Victims of Fascism in Zagreb, for George Floyd and the migrants and refugees who are routinely killed, suffocated and erased, we could not keep the tears from flowing.
We protested with the pent-up rage against the many configurations of violence – physical, racial, cultural, epistemic – that inundate the lives of communities of color in North America, of migrants undertaking dangerous journeys, and of countless others who continue to live under war and occupation. When we kneeled, we did so with all the love and hope we have for humanity. This protest honored those whose lives were extinguished and whose deaths have been invisibilized and made ungrievable. It condemned the brutal violence against George Floyd and other Black lives across the world. It also drew upon our ongoing mourning for the migrants who have perished in the Balkans and other parts of Europe. This protest highlighted, more clearly than ever before, the connections between the death of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and migrants under seemingly different circumstances across the world, and the urgency of a transnational anti-racist struggle.
We know that there are more deaths to come. The unceasing nature of deaths across the world urges us to build transnational solidarities and movements that will be uncompromising in their resistance to the politics of death and their normalization. Those who died in their search for safety, freedom and dignity and those who will die, leave us with more than grief and anger. We are called not to surrender to despair just as they had not. We are urged to mobilize our energies in memory of their struggle for freedom and struggle for breath. In the Initiative Against Police Violence and Racism protest statement we said:
Hereby, we stand with the victims of racist politics instilled in the actions of the police forces. We also express our condolences to George and other families who have suffered the loss of their loved ones. In our expression of solidarity, as we have suffered human losses due to ethnic cleansing and mass killings of civilians in the Balkans, we are sincerely mourning. Even to this end, we are daily witnessing institutional and police violence against Brown and Black migrant bodies who are being marked, abused, tortured, killed, and drowned. All by the police and the repressive apparatuses that are fueled by the hierarchy of the worthiness of lives. The convergence of institutional racism and white supremacy with the illegalization, criminalization, and Islamophobic treatment of migration have been ill-painting our societies worldwide. We also recognize the entwined racist and gender violence against Black women and Black trans people who are exposed to labeling, exclusion, threats, and abuse – often by the police or lacking the protection of the police.
We left the protest that night with racing hearts and a commitment to keep this anti-racist coalition-building alive, and questions about how to do this in a way that resists the ever-present politics of death against Black, Brown, migrant, and refugee lives? What kind of new politics will we create within and through the coalition that refuses to let the lives taken by the state, police, and militarized security regimes be futile and unmourned? How will we breathe in hope, despite these various viralities of death?
Bhattacharyya, G., Elliott-Cooper, A., Balani, S., Nişancıoğlu, K., Koram, K., Gebrial, D., … & de Noronha, L. (2021). Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State. London: Pluto Press
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Bužinkić, E. & Hameršak, M. (2017). Formation and Disintegration of the Balkan Refugee Corridor: Camps, Routes and Borders in the Croatian Context. Zagreb: Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Research, Centre for Peace Studies, Welcome Initiative and CEDIM – Centre for the Study of Ethnicity, Citizenship and Migration
Herceg, Monika. (2022). A poem published on Facebook on March 15. Initiative Against Racism and Police Violence (June 2020). https://transbalkanskasolidarnost.home.blog/stop-rasizmu-i-policijskom-nasilju-stop-racism-and-police-violence/
Kasparek, Bernd, Speer, Marc. (2015): Of Hope. Hungary and the Long Summer of Migration. Retrieved from: bordermonitoring.eu
Kobelinsky, Carolina. (2020). Border beings. Present absences among migrants in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, Death Studies, Vol 44:11, p. 709-717
Matejčić, Barbara (2 July 2020). Koga će zaštiti policajac koji repetira pištolj u oca s djecom? [Whom will protect the policeman who rehearses the gun at a father with children?] Index.hr https://www.index.hr/vijesti/clanak/barbara-matejcic-napisala-potresan-tekst-o-policijskom-nasilju-nad- migrantima/2194930.aspx
Opačić, Tamara. (30 April 2022). Nadgrobna tišina. [Grave Silence.] Portal Novosti.
Transbalkan Solidarity. (October 2020). Made in EU: Containers of Death
Transbalkan Solidarity. (April 2020). Pandemics: Police beatings instead of soap.
Schengen Border Code. (March 2016). Regulation (EU) 2016/399 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 9 March 2016 on a Union Code on the rules governing the movement of persons across borders (Schengen Borders Code) (codification). Official Journal of the European Union.
Welcome Initiative (2 March 2022). Šesta godina mučenja izbjeglica: Sedmi izvještaj o nasilnim i nezakonitim protjerivanjima. [Sixth year of refugee torture: Seventh report on violent and illegal pushbacks]. Welcome Initiative. https://welcome.cms.hr/index.php/2022/03/03/sest-godina-mucenja-izbjeglica-sedmi-izvjestaj-o-nasilnim-i-nezakonitim-protjerivanjima/